There will be fewer next time, living veterans of the D-Day invasion that culminated a year later in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of Europe. They now are in their 90s, 75 years removed from that June day on the Normandy coast of France. That isn’t to say their stories won’t be told. Rather, memories tend to fade at an accelerated pace when those who were there no longer are a physical presence in our lives.
So the D-Day anniversary events carried a deeper poignancy this week. There is a wish to hold closer and longer.
That feeling involves more than the magnificent military achievement of those young men who landed on the beaches, 4,414 among the Allied forces sacrificing their lives. Their valor long will be celebrated. Yet they set something else in motion. World War I was pitched as the war to end all wars. World War II actually resulted in such an outcome, at least on a European continent long the scene of conflict, loss of life and other ruin.
As the invasion approached, President Franklin Roosevelt was looking ahead. This second front wouldn’t just relieve the Soviet Union, then an ally, and help to defeat Germany. It would aid the president in his efforts to persuade Joseph Stalin that the Soviet Union would benefit from participating in an international body that would become the United Nations. Roosevelt was determined to deliver an effective substitute for the failed League of Nations. He roughly had in mind leading countries playing such roles as referee, mediator and even enforcer of agreements and peace.
That isn’t exactly what evolved. Yet the principle has held, along with peace in Europe. That serves to put the European Union in perspective. No doubt, its bureaucracy can be maddening, enough that a majority of British voters declared their desire to leave. What British leaders have yet to devise is a better alternative. So far, the EU comes out favorably, the arguments and frustrations it sparks far preferable to conflict of the armed variety.
The same goes for NATO. If the alliance must re-evaluate amid changing circumstances and members adjust in sharing the burden, it remains an essential part of keeping the peace. It also gets to the brilliance in what Roosevelt conceived, the concept of managing conflict and promoting prosperity resulting in financial institutions such as the World Bank and the system of rules governing trade among countries.
From the start, the United States has taken the lead, and thus, the many bodies have reflected its values and principles. They have become vehicles for American influence. U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney made the point in his speech on the Senate floor this week: These alliances and partnerships are the American advantage. Unfortunately, President Trump doesn’t seem to understand as much, not even how China and Russia would like nothing better than to see this international system disrupted.
The president appears to miss the lessons of the past, a posture that especially rattles many Europeans. They have lived the danger and wreckage of nationalism. History doesn’t teach that these institutions are flawless. Leaders here and elsewhere err in their judgment to greater and lesser degrees. The structure has brought protection against something worse.
In that way, the nearly 10,000 Americans buried at Normandy are about more than their daring, spirit and sacrifice. They represent our shared fates, or as Ronald Reagan put it 35 years ago in marking D-Day: “It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost.”